Cerura vinula — “Puss moth”

It’s fluffy. It’s cute. It’s.. the Puss Moth (Cerura vinula!) – A species of Notodontid moth found in the Palearctic realm from Europe to temperate Asia to China and North Africa. They are well known for their hairy bodies and bizarre looking larvae!

Cerura vinula male imago

Cerura vinula is encountered in dunes, shrub-lands, marshes, urban parks and heath lands, where it’s associated with poplar tree (Populus) and willow (Salix) – their most important host plants. The species seems to prefer young trees, often less than two metres (2m) in size and are much more rarely found in older and “mature” trees. Cerura vinula prefers vegetation that appears to be in the early to intermediate stages of succession. Although associated with woodlands, they’re often found breeding in the younger vegetation around the forest edges and clearings.

Cerura vinula final instar

Most notable about this species are their larvae. Their terminal prolegs have been modified into tail-like appendages (flagellae), the tips of which they can extend even further by protruding two whip-like tentacles that can wiggle wildly when they feel threatened.

This threat display is often accompanied by the larvae turning its face towards the perceived threat, exposing the bright red coloration near their head capsule. And if that isn’t enough to intimidate any potential enemies they also have a gland under their face that allows them to spray formic acid!

Cerura vinula male

Cerura vinula is a Palearctic realm species, that is reportedly found in Albania, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, United Kingdom, Bulgaria, European Russia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, European Turkey, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Republic of North Macedonia,Republic of Moldova, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Ukraine and Yugoslavia), across temperate Asia to China and in North Africa.

In some cases, they are reared in captivity by moth enthousiasts; due to the spectacular appearance of the larvae.

  • Difficulty rating:  Simple – they are quite easy to breed, even for breeders with little experience. Imagoes pair very easily in captivity. Larvae are not hard to raise either and are tolerant to a wide range of temperature and humidity. However beware of infections.
  • Rearing difficulty: 5/10 (From egg to pupa)
  • Pairing difficulty: 2/10 (Achieving copulations)
  • Host plants: Several plants in the genus Salix (willow) and Populus (poplar tree).
  • Natural range:  Most importantly it is a Palearctic realm species, that is reportedly found in Albania, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, United Kingdom, Bulgaria, European Russia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, European Turkey, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Republic of North Macedonia,Republic of Moldova, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Ukraine and Yugoslavia), across temperate Asia to China and in North Africa.
  • Polyphagous: not very; mainly limits itself to two genera of Salicaceae (Salix and Populus).
  • Generations:  Potentially bivoltine; however, most of the time the moths have just one brood per year and cocoons hibernate. There is however, a partial second generation,
  • Family: Notodontidae (Prominent moths)
  • Pupation: Cocoon (silk casing)
  • Prefered climate: Temperate. Cocoons must experience cold hibernation. Larvae tolerate a wide range of temperatures.
  • Special notes: In some instances, larvae are capable of spraying formic acid. This can be harmful to your eyes.
  • Estimated wingspan: 45mm-60mm
  • Binomial name: Cerura vinula (Linnaeus, 1758)

The eggs of Cerura vinula are chocolate brown and shiny. The underside of the egg is completely flat, while the upper side is spherical. The eggs are often attached to the upper side of the leaves or twigs and tree bark. The eggs of this species hatch in about 9-14 days (depending on temperature).

Cerura vinula hatching from the eggs
Cerura vinula eggs

The eggs of this species can be incubated at room temperature (which is around 21C). To incubate them, it is possible to use small plastic containers or petri dishes. In two weeks, small black babies will hatch from the eggs.

Caterpillars of the genus Cerura (but also their relatives such as the genus Furcula, Neoharpyia, etc.) have a very distinct look! Their last pair of prolegs is heavily modified into two flagellae – tentacle like appeandages or tails. These are used to distract predators away from their vital body parts.

In captivity, this species can be reared in plastic boxes and containers with relative ease; they have a high tolerance for humidity. You can use airtight plastic containers, that are lined with paper towels to absorb excess moisture. Feed them fresh twigs of poplar tree or willow (Populus, Salix).

Cerura vinula L1

Very alien looking – Cerura vinula L1. Both Populus and Salix seems to work equally well. Perhaps Populus has one advantage – it does not dry out as fast as Salix does.

Cerura vinula L1
Cerura vinula L1
Cerura vinula L1 rearing containers

In these pictures, it is visible how I reared the larvae – in airtight plastic boxes. The first instar tolerates high humidity and did not seem to need much ventilation – but I do recommend creating ventilation holes or vents if you raise them in plastic boxes in L2 & L3.

Cerura vinula L2
Cerura vinula L3

The second and third life stage can also be reared in plastic boxes – just make sure to upgrade them to larger boxes each time – and make sure to ventilate their enclosures. It is also possible to raise them in ventilated cages, but make sure the indoor conditions are not too dry (indoors can dry out some species of larvae). Populus or Salix can be cut and placed in bottles or cans containing water to keep them fresh, so larvae can feed from the foliage.

Salix twigs in bottles & cans containing tap water to keep them fresh and hydrated
Cerura vinula late L3

Usually larvae grow well indoors; but make sure the environment is not too dry (indoors is very dry!). However, they can also be reared all the way through to the cocoon stage in plastic containers. If you decide to use plastic containers, use generously large boxes, and cut a modest amount of ventilation holes in them. If you decide to use cages, buy pop-up cages for pet insects online. Cut some food plant (Salix, Populus) and place it in a bottle filled with water; it will keep the plant fresh. The caterpillars will roam freely on the plant and consume the leaves.

Pop-up cage containing Cerura vinula larvae
Cerura vinula L4
Cerura vinula L4
Cerura vinula L4

The final life stage is quite bizarre and somewhat intimidating; if harassed, they can extend their flagellae and wiggle them around. The cuticle around their head capsule is also bright read, and on top they have what happens to be two false ‘eyes’ ; no doubt this creates the impression of a ‘false face’ that may throw small vertebrates looking to eat them, off guard.

As a last resort, the larvae can also spray formic acid from a gland under their head. While rarely done unprovoked, it must be noted that this can be a painful experience if directed at one’s eyes. While incidents in captivity are rare, it’s good to keep this fact in mind; an angry larva spraying acid may temporarily blind someone that was unlucky enough to directly stare at them in that moment.

Cerura vinula l5
Cerura vinula L5
Cerura vinula L5
Cerura vinula L5

Once they are fully grown, the larvae will start spinning some of the thoughest cocoons in the moth world! While most species spin cocoons made from silk, Cerura vinula has a different strategy. They will start chewing up tree bark, and incorporate the wood pulp into the silk they excrete! This results in very strong papery cocoons.

NOTE: In captivity, the species is able to tear up their own enclosures during this process! In some cases, moth breeders have reported larvae chewing holes in plastic containers and net cages, while looking for a place to spin a cocoon. Larvae that escape as a result can even damage wooden furniture by chewing holes in it as they attempt to spin cocoons!

In order to prevent this from happening, provide the caterpillars with adequate materials; such as twigs from willow trees, or tree bark. In some cases, people have succesfully used empty egg cartons as well. In the majority of cases, they prefer spinning cocoons on sticks and twigs – and anything with a woody surface. Only if they fail to find a suitable place to cocoon, sometimes they will decide to do it in the corner of their enclosures out of desperation.

Cerura vinula spinning a cocoon
Cerura vinula cocoon

Great succes! Do not bother to remove the cocoons from the branches; they are pretty much fused! Instead, just cut the branches at the points where the larvae have in fact pupated and remove the cocoons together with the branches.

Most of the time, the cocoons must hibernate(!). Only if stored cold during winter, will the moths emerge in spring. In fact, it is the prolonged cold temperatures that breaks their hibernation (but only once they have been warmed up again). In nature, moths emerge in spring after spending the winter in the pupal stage.

Data does seem to suggest however, that Cerura vinula can have a partial second brood. In the wild, the moths are found from April to September (one brood near April-May and another one near Juli-August); so in some cases, it should be possible to have moths during the same year in which the larvae were reared.

Cerura vinula cocoons after being harvested

To hibernate cocoons, store them properly cold between November and April (5C-10C works). This can be done outdoors; don’t worry, they survive harsh cold – but also in a refridgerator or cold basement or garden shed.

In spring, expect to see the moths come out!

Cerura vinula drying its wings
Cerura vinula female
Cerura vinula female
Cerura vinula female

The imagoes are positively cute, but rather short lived; their lifespan seems to be 4 to 8 days. These moths have no functioning mouthparts, and therefore, cannot feed. They simply run out of energy after a while.

Males and females are easy to recognise based on their antennae; females have much thinner antennae than the males. In comparison, females are often also larger.

Cerura vinula male; antennae very noticable
Males and females mating

Great succes! After mating, females will lay eggs easily – it is a simple matter of keeping them alive, and they will scatter the eggs all over their enclosure. In the wild, eggs are often laid singly or in small groups in close proximity of eachother on top of the leaves.

Breeding succes! A great number of cute moths.
Cerura vinula male

In captivity, this species mates very easily. Important is to place the imagoes in well-ventilated enclosures, in the darkness (no articial light!). In these conditions, matings tend to be nearly guaranteed to happen. Males hook up with females, and attach themselves to the female using the hooks (claspers) near their genitals. In some cases, males dangle below the females. They can be mated easily in ‘pop-up’ cages.

A mating of Cerura vinula (female on top)
A mating of Cerura vinula (female on top)

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Citations: Coppens, B. (2023); Written by Bart Coppens; based on a real life breeding experience [for citations in literature and publications] 

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